• The XQ-58A meets the U.S. Navy's manned-unmanned teaming concept
  • The drone is "stealthy" and can deploy a mix of weapons from its internal bomb bay and wing station
  • With a modular, open-architecture design, the XQ-58A will allow for the rapid integration of various sensors and other systems

In a significant step toward developing an uncrewed warfare system, the U.S. Navy has confirmed the purchase of two experimental XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned combat stealth aerial vehicles as part of its Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer program.

The contract for $15.5 million awarded to Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc., Sacramento, California, is a cost-plus-fixed-fee deal to procure and deliver two XQ-58A unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with sensor and weapon system payloads to "accomplish the penetrating affordable autonomous collaborative killer – portfolio objectives," according to the Defense Department contract announcement made on Dec. 30.

Although little information is publicly available about the details of the Navy's penetrating affordable autonomous collaborative killer program, the force is looking for a system that has long-range stealth capabilities and, at the same time, is lethal, low cost and able to operate with limited human intervention and also versatile to team with other platforms, said a report by Defense Scoop.

As central to the future of naval aviation, the U.S. Navy is developing its sixth-generation, Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which is a family of manned and unmanned systems. A manned fighter, currently known as F/A-XX, operating is the centerpiece of the program, said a report by USNI News.

As part of the program, the Navy plans to employ the systems which it calls a manned-unmanned teaming concept, the USNI report added.

Notably, the Navy's Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) on Dec. 21 completed the first-of-its-kind at-sea demonstration, which involved the delivery of supplies to a moving ship. The force wants to introduce unmanned drone cargo delivery to the fleet.

The U.S. Navy's decision to deploy unmanned vehicles is in line with the global trend of testing low-cost, uncrewed aircraft for short-term missions. Major powers have been developing technology that will allow unmanned drones to replace highly-trained and expensive fighters, keeping them away from harm.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie, which is not competitively procured, fits the bill, based on information that's publicly available and U.S. military statements, the Defense Scoop report added.

Originally developed for the Air Force, the XQ-58 Valkyrie is designed to operate with a manned fighter that meets the Navy's manned-unmanned teaming concept.

Apart from its low cost of a few million dollars per platform, the drone is "stealthy" and can deploy a mix of weapons from its internal bomb bay and wing stations, Defense Scoop noted. Although the exact cost per unit of the drone is yet not clear, War Zone reported that it could cost around $4 million to $2 million depending on production volume.

The drone is 30 feet long with a 27-foot wingspan and has a dry weight of 2,500 pounds with a maximum launch weight of 6000. The vehicle is capable of a cruise speed of Mach 0.72 with an operational altitude of 45,000 ft above sea level. According to the Kratos data sheet, the drone has a 600-pound internal payload and mid-wing capacity.

The XQ-58A has a modular, open-architecture design intended to allow for the rapid integration of various sensors and other systems, the War Zone report added.

Kratos has touted the Valkyrie as a readily deployable platform with overall limited infrastructure requirements. Its rocket-assisted take-off method from a static launcher, and returns via parachute at the end of a sortie makes the drone runway-independent. The company has also developed a version of the drone that can be carried in a shipping container. It has even shown a container-based launcher in the past.

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Representational Image: US Navy AFP / Mladen ANTONOV